Let's say that, later tonight, you dream about waiting in line at Starbucks behind a masked figure who turns out to be Barack Obama, or maybe Donald Trump (take your pick). What does it mean?
A) Eh, not much. Onward.
B) I'll need more details, but it's undoubtedly a manifestation of a repressed fear and/or desire. Let's do some free association to help me deconstruct the symbolic meaning of each element in the dream, starting with the question "why Starbucks?"
C) This one dream may not say much about me. But, if we analyze it alongside a lot of other dreams about the same politician, we can glean valuable insight into that person's cultural legacy for different subsets of the population.
The right answer is C, according to Kelly Bulkeley, a psychologist who's spent 25 years keeping tabs on how, and how much, Americans dream about politicians. In 2009, Bulkeley launched the Sleep and Dream Database, an online archive for dream science. The database has thousands of dream reports, which are descriptions of dreams submitted by the dreamers themselves, typically during a psych study. Over the past eight years, Bulkeley has paid especially close attention to the hundreds of dreams involving Barack Obama. To Bulkeley, our (literal) political dreams are an under-valued cultural time capsule. A recent story for The Atlantic, written by Will Di Novi, examined Bulkeley's theory of “an outward-facing, culture-oriented dimension of dreaming."
We've known for a while that presidential dreams are a thing. Thanks to both Bulkeley's database and a dream bank created by the psychologist G. William Domhoff, we have access to presidential dreams from the days of LBJ and Harry Truman. Still, for years, psychologists saw little cultural relevance in, say, a study participant's dream about playing jacks with Jimmy Carter. But times are changing, Di Novi explained:
Psychologists dating back to Freud have typically viewed dreams as self-centered, with little relevance outside the personal wishes of the dreamer. Bulkeley and other contemporary researchers see things differently. They argue that a person’s dreams, when compared to others’ on a large enough scale, can also have collective significance, reflecting concerns shared by communities.
So, what has Bulkeley learned from eight years of Obama dreams?
- Most Obama dream reports come from political liberals, as left-leaning study participants tend to recall dreams at a higher rate than their GOP counterparts.
- Obama has remained a fixture in dreams since entering office. Researchers attribute Obama's "nocturnal staying power," Di Novi said, to his media visibility.
- Obama dreams shifted in terms of their content and tone over his two terms: Fresh off his "Yes We Can" campaign, "Dream Obama" was a "figure of messianic powers, resolving disputes, levitating objects, and, in one eerily prophetic dream, ripping off Osama Bin Laden’s fingers with his teeth," Di Novi wrote.
- Around the 2010 midterms, Dream Obama became somewhat less mighty and stayed that way throughout his second term. But he never became nightmare fuel. Di Novi wrote: "Bulkeley’s liberal subjects have maintained their fondness for the man behind the institution. They dream of drinking beers with him at parties. They dream of meeting him for lunch dates."
- During the 2016 campaign, POTUS fared better in dreams than the presidential-hopefuls, according to a survey Bulkeley helped run last May. Hillary Clinton came off as a committed public servant, but not an awe-inspiring god-like figure, like Obama had. Trump showed up in dreams more often than Clinton did, but "dreamers on both ends of the political spectrum tended to describe him in negative terms." Compared to Clinton and Trump, Dream Obama was a comforting presence.
Di Novi himself sought out Obama dreamers online to see if Bulkeley's depiction of Dream Obama as a popular, reassuring figure bore out — it did. While we can't say for sure that Obama is the most dreamed-about president in history, Bulkeley told Di Novi that, in 25 years of studying dreams about politicians, he's "never seen another figure who more clearly supports his hypothesis that a person’s “frequency of appearance in people’s dreams is an index of their charisma.”'
Bulkeley's work feels especially relevant in our current political climate, but he's not the first researcher to use dreams as a sociological barometer. In 1966, Calvin S. Hall and another psychologist developed a system for coding dream content, which Hall believed is primarily an extension of our waking thoughts. Researchers have used that coding system, among others, to track trends in the dreams of different populations. For instance, clear and predictable differences between male and female dreams have faded over the years, which, to some researchers, reflects loosening gender roles.
While the notion of treating dreams like opinion polls might be compelling, it still seems reasonable to question the reliability of dream-content analysis. Bulkeley's work relies on people honestly and accurately reporting dreams, when there are no repurcussions for lying, exaggerating or filling in forgotten blanks. So what might encourage honest, accurate reports? Anonymity, asking people to recall dreams soon after they've had them, and framing questions about dreams in a neutral manner. (If you ask someone to tell you the funniest thing that happened to them on vacation, they're probably going to offer up an amusing tale, whether or not it happened as they claim. If you simply ask them to describe their trip, however, they might not feel the same pressure to deliver a hilarious anecdote. Same goes for dreams.)
I'll admit I'm still skeptical of dream reports. While Bulkeley pulls most of the database's reports from academic sources, a good chunk of his Obama dreams came from an informal 2008 crowdsourcing project, in which people were encouraged to submit dreams about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and/or John McCain to be posted online. We, at Van Winkle's, actually did a similar (though much smaller) project last year and I wondered if some of the responses were doctored — they seemed more clever and well-structured than real dreams are, based on my experience reading about dreams and, well, dreaming. Though, to be fair, the dreams in Bulkeley's database run the gamut from "obvs. fake" to "yup, that's about as unremarkable and fragmented as I'd expect a dream to be."
But whether or not these dream reports are entirely accurate, I'd argue they still shed light on our feelings about politcal figures, either by illuminating how we dream about them or how we think we'd dream about them. For instance, last night I dreamt that, on the eve of The Inauguration, Obama surprised the country by announcing that he's actually serving a third term. And then Trump exiled himself to "Chyna" and gave up his Twitter access. (That's a lie. Dare to dream.)